Unai Emery is an elite manager with something to put right at Aston Villa | Unai Emery

“I left home at 24 – Hondarribia, San Sebastián, Real Sociedad – and opened myself up to the world of football: carrying my suitcase, facing many difficult moments, leaving my comfort zone,” Unai Emery said. It was Tuesday morning and he was trying to explain why he was packing up again. Lorca, Almería, Valencia, Moscow, Seville, Paris, London, Vila-real and now Birmingham. The call from Aston Villa came last Friday, he said. He told Villarreal, arranging a meeting for Monday. Before leaving, he wanted to take the last of his 129 games there – a victory dedicated to José Manuel Llaneza, who died three days earlier.

Emery described Llaneza, the vice-president, as one part of the “triangle” that made Villarreal what they are. At his goodbye press conference, he sat on the left of the other two: owner and president, Fernando Roig, and his son and chief executive, Fernando Roig Jr. From almost nothing, over 25 years, Llaneza and the Roig family had built Villarreal into one of Spain’s most successful clubs, a regular presence in Europe. But they hadn’t won anything until Emery came, which was exactly why Emery came, about as close to a guarantee as you can get. With him, history was made.

The 2021 Europa League title – their first, his fourth – is why he leaves with a job unfinished but also with his work there done.

Emery walking out was a “surprise”, Roig Sr admitted, and not one he welcomed. The president made a point of describing Emery’s departure as a “unilateral” decision, Villa paying the €6m (£5.25m) release clause. Unlike when Newcastle came last season, Emery stood firm, dared to defy them. Roig described the situation Villarreal had been left in as “screwed”, referring repeatedly to being caught “wrong-footed”; at one point he stopped himself saying something stronger. “Thanks to him but he has left us … well, I won’t use the word I was going to use, because all the media will use it,” he said. “And because what really matters now is to thank him for the time he was here.”

If there was admonishment there was affection too, recognition. There was a paternal pat on Emery’s arm, a knowing smile. “When it comes to results, he passed with honours,” Roig rightly said. A Europa League followed by a Champions League semi-final, the second in the club’s history, is an extraordinary achievement – although it is true that inheriting a team in fifth and completing two seventh-placed finishes was a disappointing return that Emery had set as a target to improve on this season. He departs with Villarreal seventh.

Villarreal are in Europe this season and should be back next year. At Villa there are different targets. Survival, for a start. At the end of last season when Villarreal took the Conference League place, Emery admitted his relief, saying it would feel strange, wrong, not to compete on the continent after so many years. That is what he steps into now, starting next Tuesday. On the face of it, it is a step down but he will believe that only in the short term and he had felt his time by Spain’s east coast was coming to a close at the end of the season anyway. Villa are a huge club, with a rich history, a massive fanbase, something to build. Equally, it is legitimate to wonder whether other options might not have opened.

Unai Emery (right) and the Villarreal president, Fernando Roig, embrace during his farewell press conference.
Unai Emery (right) and the Villarreal president, Fernando Roig, embrace during his farewell press conference. Photograph: Domenech Castello/EPA

“We were happy to get a coach with his cachet, a curriculum like his,” Roig Jr had said when Emery joined Villarreal, and those are words Villa would surely echo. They will feel they have secured a genuinely elite manager, demanding and driven, an enthusiast. An achiever, too.

Asked directly why he was heading to 15th-placed Aston Villa, Emery declined to answer. Today was about Villarreal, he said. He did though say, a little later: “Every league, every club, every context is different; it’s not better or worse, it’s different. I leave a project still alive in Europe and there I will have a different one. When you take on a project you have to have a wider perspective.”

Emery talked about the emotional ties at Villarreal and at one point his voice cracked. But he said decisions have to be taken “cold”, that managers have to be “mentally calculated” and opportunities have to be taken. He called Villa a “very good challenge, professionally”. The money matters, of course: it would be naive to overlook a three- or four-fold salary increase. There is something simple at play too: it’s the Premier League, and that pulls.

Asked why he had not taken the Newcastle job this time last year, Emery said they were “different moments, different opportunities, different contexts. Weighing it all up last year I decided ‘no’; this time I decided ‘yes’.”

The biggest difference, though, was a simple one: back then he thought he was going but had not expected resistance and had not been prepared to fight to leave; he was not going to push back when Roig effectively closed the doors. On Tuesday he made reference to “respecting the contracts we sign”, the payment of his release clause clarifying everything.

And so he moves on, a coach who can’t sit still. And for all the talk of being cold, calculated, there is a hint of the emotional here. Of pride, certainly.

“This profession is inside me,” Emery said. His father was a goalkeeper. His grandfather was too, conceding the first goal scored in La Liga. And although Unai was, in his own words, “a humble player”, he was always likely to be a coach, a journey he embarked upon aged 32, at tiny Lorca. From there he took Almería up for only the second time, and so it began. “I did it because I liked it; I felt the same then as a I do now,” he says, driven by a feel for achievement and the experience. For status and legacy too.

The Arsenal manager, Unai Emery, gestures during the pre-season friendly match against Lazio in 2018.
Unai Emery was the head coach of Arsenal from May 2018 to November 2019. Photograph: Fabian Bimmer/Reuters

At Villarreal, where he says he was “able to be the best me”, that is secure, although the departure hurts, maybe diminishes it slightly. In England there is unfinished business, a feeling of injustice and mistreatment. He has succeeded almost everywhere – although in Moscow he lasted two months – but in the Premier League there is something to put right. The desire to return has been there almost from the day he left Arsenal.

Look at this line from May 2020: “Football is pure emotion. This sentiment in football brings people together, and in England that is very defined, entrenched. In England that identification with your team brings the game alive. It’s deeper there, like a church. I was born in San Sebastián and my team is Real Sociedad. That feeling is in my heart and that’s what you find in England. It’s marvellous, the loveliest thing there is. I’m watching football, learning. And if there’s a good project in England, if someone wants me and is prepared to get behind me, I’m available.”

On Friday the call came from Villa. The timing wasn’t right, but Emery had been waiting long enough, prepared to get back on the road. “I was formed inside football,” he said. “When the opportunities come you have to consider them, and I considered this one I had to take.”